Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Title: Hillbilly Elegy
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Gabriel Basso, Amy Adams, Glenn Close
Runtime: 1 hr 56 mins

What It Is: J.D. (Basso), a Yale law student, is yanked back to his hometown after his sister Lindsay calls him with the news that his mother Bev (Adams) has had an overdose and is in the hospital. When hurriedly making the trip to his hometown in Ohio, J.D. reminisces over his journey that has brought him this far, remembering the impact that his mother’s troubled nature and grandmother’s (Close) tough love had on him.

What We Think: Ron Howard’s work is usually hit or miss for me. You either get an Apollo 13 (a taught masterpiece), a Willow (all in good fun), or A Beautiful Mind (Oscar fodder). What we’ve gotten from Elegy is another A Beautiful Mind, surprise surprise. If anyone isn’t already aware of my aversion to that movie, you are now. In this case, while the Hollywood elements don’t completely stain the biography part, I think I’m finally at that point where I’m wondering where the purpose of this film really lies. It’s to tell this family’s story, yes, but I can’t help but feel this is all too commercial in the idea that this story could have been told with gallons more impact, heart, and believability if Howard had just given the family a documentary and a platform to tell their story from their own mouths.

While the performances are good (we all knew that, coming from this cast), I felt like there wasn’t much else to behold in a coming-of-age story that doesn’t point issue to poverty, mental health, or drug use, but is rather much more passive. What’s the thing that actually gets Bev sober? Family is the easy answer, but the reality of it is unapparent. The sequence of scenes, a majority of which are chronological flashbacks, feel disjointed and sugarcoated with the idea that family and the “proud American spirit” is what carried our protag and his family members through. I could rag on the romanticization for a while, but it’s really not the largest offense. Overall, this film doesn’t really seem to have much of a place anywhere except on the casts’ resumes (do A-listers even have resumes..?).

Our Grade: C, Someone will enjoy this and see themselves and their family within it, the themes of patriotism, roots, loyalty, and strength that’s so endearingly sticky and artificial, this watch is pretty much the movie equivalent to empty calories. It didn’t push as hard in any direction as it really should have been, whether it be a story about coming of age, about a dysfunctional family, or a dysfunctional mother, it never really chooses any sides other than saying “this is what happened, what a wild ride–and we’re all fine now.”  I reiterate, with films like A Beautiful Mind (one of the stinkiest Oscar baits of all time, in my opinion) (*editors note that film was ALSO directed by Ron Howard) or even the likes of Lost Girls, the world is better off with a documentary or closer representation of love, humanity, social issues, and overall reality rather than seeing Amy Adams cry for the umpteenth time. In fact–just go read J.D.’s actual autobiography instead. I’m glad they got a movie made about them, I just can’t say it’ll be renting any space in my memory ever again.

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Author: Chai Simone